I have always been a strong proponent for knowing your family health history. Genealogists should be aware of the advantage of using genetics to not only make a familial connection, but also uncover possible links to hereditary diseases and ailments. Consequently, my focus for September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month because of my own health history. As a carrier of the trait, which is usually asymptomatic, I was one of the few that had milder symptoms of the disease. As a child I remember suffering painful episodes that were attributed to “growing pains”. Only now do I realize that these were not in my head, and I have had bouts of anemia through my adult life. Although there are very few who know about the disease, there are approximately 100,000 people suffering with the condition in the United States alone.
What is Sickle Cell Disease?
Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a genetically inherited blood disorder. There are several different forms of SCD, and the most common and usually the most severe form is sickle cell anemia.
- Normal red blood cells are round like doughnuts, and they move through small blood tubes in the body to deliver oxygen. (fig.1)
- Sickle red blood cells become hard, sticky and shaped like sickles used to cut wheat. (fig.2)
- When these hard and pointed red cells go through the small blood tube, they clog the flow and break apart. This can cause pain, damage and a low blood count, or anemia. (fig.3) (Proudford, 2014, para. 2)
My father was aware that he carried the sickle cell trait, and he was adamant that I be tested for it as an infant. I knew since I was younger what that meant, but by the time I was old enough to have children of my own I forgot about the potential to pass the disease to my own children. “The sickle cell gene is passed from generation to generation in a pattern of inheritance called autosomal recessive inheritance. This means that both the mother and the father must pass on the defective form of the gene for a child to be affected” (Causes, 2014). That being said, my father had to inherit the trait from one of his parents, and so on. I happen to know that it was my paternal grandmother, so it was passed to her from one of her parents, but I don’t know which one. In a case where I was uncertain of parentage the condition would be able to help me narrow down my list. Unfortunately, many of the death certificates that I research do not list sickle cell as a contributing factor as a cause of death, and in the example of my paternal family, many of them died from heart disease. I wonder if I would be able to determine if death was a result of end organ disease and undiagnosed SCD or a predisposition to heart disease?
There are many clues in my genealogical research that force me to pay attention to my own health, specifically when I see the diseases and conditions my ancestors suffered from. The study of genetic genealogy allows me to take my research one step beyond what I see in records. However, the standard DNA tests that are available today for genealogy do not test the markers that show genetic diseases. I believe it is just as important for genealogists to leave a legacy of medical information for their descendants because knowing this history can save their life. Therefore, in my own family pedigree charts I always include the cause of death along with other vital information, which also makes it easier for me to create a chart to show patterns of ailments and diseases. There are also web-based tools for those who feel comfortable storing this information online. The Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative was created to encourage all American families to learn more about their family health history. “My Family Health Portrait Tool” can be found online at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/fhh-web/home.action.
Today, not only do we understand that such uncommon diseases as sickle cell are hereditary, but that even common ailments such as diabetes, many cancers, and heart disease may also have a genetic link. Making a pedigree chart, taking the simple blood tests, and registering for the marrow donor lists can make a difference in your own family health history, as well as those who are affected with similar conditions. It could mean alleviating unnecessary pain and suffering, or possibly life and death.
Next month I will continue in the series of genetic genealogy for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “Currently the National Institutes of Health (NIH), through its Human Genome Project, is mapping the 100,000 genes in the human cell. We now know, for instance, that a woman with a certain damaged gene, BRCA1, has a 90% chance of getting breast cancer during her lifetime. If a search through your family tree shows a high incidence of breast cancer, then this gene may be lurking in your pedigree” (NGS, para. 7, 2013).
Read more specifics about sickle cell disease at http://www.examiner.com/article/national-sickle-cell-disease-awareness-month
Committee on Genetic Genealogy. (2014). Retrieved September 2014, from http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/genetic_genealogy_committee
Sickle Cell Anemia, Causes. (2014) Retrieved September 2014, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sickle-cell-anemia/basics/causes/con-20019348
Genetics and Genealogy. (Feb 2013). Retreived September 2014, from http://www.kerchner.com/books/introg&g.htm
What is sickle cell disease? (2014). Retrieved September 2014, from http://www.wepsicklecell.org/about/.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron, later dubbed the Tuskegee Airmen, was activated in March of 1941. In honor of this important anniversary I was drawn back to my own research and I found a possible connection to the prestigious airmen in my paternal Holbert line. Of course, with every new discovery there are always more mysteries that come along to challenge your findings.
Much of my research of the Holbert family reveals a long line of educators, and that tradition continued in the line of my 2nd great grand uncle, Benjamin D. Holbert. On the census records from 1870 and 1880 he is listed as the son of Franklin and Susan Holbert, living in Cherokee, Texas. In 1890 I found a city directory from Waco, Texas that lists a Benjamin D. Holbert as a colored teacher. The only record I found for anyone matching his birth date in 1900 was in the U.S. Jail in Muscogee, Oklahoma, Indian Territory. It states he was born in Texas and both of his parents were born in Alabama, which matches my uncle, but it lists his occupation as “physician”. This census also states Benjamin has been married for 13 years. Although I don’t find any more records for him after 1900, there is a marriage record for a B.D. Halbert and Annie Marie Estell in nearby Mclennan, Texas dated December 29, 1886 (14 years from that 1900 census). Coincidence?
Ann Marie Estell was born in Waco, Texas around 1868. I do not find her on a 1900 census, but I do have a city directory from as early as 1902 that puts her in Waco, Texas. In 1910 she is living in Hill County, Texas with four children: Annie, Benjamin Jr, Jessie and Ruth. All of the children’s death certificates confirm their father’s name as B.D. Holbert.
The only son, Benjamin Jr., is living with his wife, Sarah, on the 1928 city directory in Dallas, Texas. He is using the initials B.D. Holbert from this point forward. However, on the 1930 census he is now living in Seminole, Oklahoma. He is widowed and is boarding in the household of William and Emma Simmons. His current age, age at first marriage, and his occupation of public school teacher match my ancestor’s information. On the 1940 census he is still in Seminole, Oklahoma but is now married again and a principal in the public schools. Was that an error to list him as widower on the last census? If so, why was he living apart from his family?
Sarah Cummings Holbert is still living in Dallas, Texas with her two children, Bertrand and Kenneth, on the 1930 census. She also states that she is widowed. According to her death certificate she had remarried and was now Sarah Sears. I have not yet been able to find her or her children on the 1940 census, but I do know that she was also a public school teacher.
It is Benjamin and Sarah’s son Bertrand Holbert who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen Class 45A Single Engine Pursuit Pilots. I don’t have the proof I would need to make this a positive match even though there are relatives who have listed them in their family tree. I have so many ancestors named Benjamin, B.D., and Annie to keep them all straight. I need to order the death certificates of all the names that I don’t have already, and hopefully they will clear up some of the confusion.
Tuskegee Airmen Class 45A Single Engine Pursuit Pilots
That would be my cousin Bertrand Holbert, 2nd row, last one on the right.
Photo retrieved from http://www.military.com/Content/MoreContent1/?file=BH_Tuskegee
The name “Tin can sailor” is a term used to refer to sailors serving on Navy destroyers. I had never heard of the term until recently, while researching my 2nd cousin Melvin Holbert, I discovered that he was on the USS Shields (DD-596) as a stewardsman from 1954-56.
Between 18 July 1954 and 30 November 1963, Shields was deployed to WESTPAC seven times. When not assigned to the western Pacific, she engaged in normal destroyer activities out of her home port, San Diego. One of the highlights of this decade of Shields’ career was her participation in the commemoration of the triumphant return of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” to San Francisco. Another important occasion was the award of the Battle Efficiency “E” for overall combat readiness in August 1960 (http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/s12/shields.htm).
Aside from being in a cramped and uncomfortable place in every day there were other health risks associated with serving on destroyers.
- Asbestos Risk on the USS Shields (DD-596)
Because asbestos is essentially fireproof, it became the primary means of fireproofing seafaring vessels beginning in the 1930s. Naval vessels use many pieces of equipment that generate high amounts of thermal energy, such as turbines and pumps. The Navy saw that asbestos could be used in a variety of ways throughout its fleet, particularly as thermal insulation, and continued to use it up to the 1970s.
Sailors on Shields that were primarily employed in repair or maintenance duties generally had the most severe asbestos exposure. The risk was also greater for sailors working in engineering sections and boiler rooms. No member of the crew was completely safe from exposure, as the mineral was also used wrap the vessel’s steam pipes and to pack pumps and valves.
Asbestos material causes mesothelioma by destroying a thin membrane called the mesothelium when it is breathed in. Because exposure to asbestos is the only known cause this cancer, there are usually legal options for Navy veterans suffering from mesothelioma.
Haze Gray & Underway. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. DD-596.
http://www.hazegray.org/danfs/destroy/dd596txt.htm) Retrieved 26 January 2011.
NavSource Naval History. USS Shields (DD-596).
http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/596.htm) Retrieved 26 January 2011.